The Way of Torah (Commentary on portions of the Torah)

In The Beginning, The Very Beginning

Rashi, the great interpreter of Bible and Talmud, began his commentary on the Torah with a question: “Why does the Torah begin with creation?” Indeed, why does the Torah include any of the stories of Genesis? Rashi’s question has turned out to be more significant than he could have ever guessed.

For centuries now, the Torah has been the object of both devotion and controversy. Jews (and Christians, but in a very different way) are devoted to it as a sacred text: the word of God, transmitted to Moses and passed on to the People Israel. The controversy arises precisely from its reputed sacredness; if it is indeed the word of God, then it must be true! Most of the Torah is made up of commandments. (This was the point of Rashi’s initial comment.) Commandments are essentially value judgments: the keeping of the Sabbath, returning a fledgling to its mother’s nest, or even abjuring homosexual behavior are less subjected to a test of truth, in the sense of whether they are facts, but rather to a disposition of their trueness—their being right, in accord with the way of the cosmos, etc.

Jews were historically willing to accept the ‘truth’ of God’s commandments in the Torah, because they were willing to accept the ‘truth’ of the entire Torah. This is why Rashi’s apparent suggestion to do away with the entire book of Genesis, and start Torah with God’s first commandment to Israel in Exodus 12, looks good. The big problem with Genesis is, of course, that modern scholarship (that is, since the seventeenth century!) has made it difficult to accept as factually true. And nothing is harder to accept than the very beginning: the story of Creation, the primeval couple in the Garden, the talking snake, the world-engulfing flood.

B’reisheet In The Beginning, The Very Beginning (2000)

The ambitious goal of articulating a broad, coherent and compelling vision for Orthodox Rabbis is fraught with difficult questions such as:  How do we maintain a balance between the values of centralized authority and personal autonomy in halachik decision making, particularly for status issues that relate to the global Jewish community such as conversion policies and standards?   How do we provide and promote a ‘big tent’ philosophy welcoming Rabbis who share different approaches and philosophies while at the same time maintain boundaries of acceptable halachik and hashkafic (ideological) ideas and behavior?  How should the agenda of the Jewish community be set and how should we leverage our limited resources?  How can we collaborate and create synergy with leadership of the greater Jewish community without compromising or diluting authentic and authoritative Torah positions and messages?

As we dialogued and debated questions like these and others, I couldn’t help but think about an important statistic that weighs heavily on me.  In a world of billions of people, there are only 15 million Jews.  Of them, only a small fraction are Orthodox and within Orthodoxy, only a small fraction define themselves as Modern Orthodox.  Those who combine an unconditional and unwavering commitment to halacha and the supremacy of Torah and at the same time value general knowledge and culture, participation in the greater Jewish community and society at large, and lastly see religious significance in the modern State of Israel, are few in number and arguably inconsequential in the greater Jewish scene.

To me, the primary objective of the RCA and others must be to influence our own constituents to live inspired Jewish lives informed by Torah values and rich with Jewish meaning and purpose.  Only then can we begin to have an impact on the greater scene and bring Torah’s vision for an ethical and uplifting society to the masses.

If this goal seems unachievable and out of reach, I encourage you to look no further than this week’s parsha and our great patriarch Avraham Avinu and his partner Sarah.  They lived in a world saturated with paganism, corruption and selfishness and yet had the courage to articulate and spread the revolutionary message of ethical monotheism.  They lived in a world with no mass media, email, social networking, youtube videos,  microphones, billboards or newspapers and yet, look at the result of their efforts.  Billions of people across the globe believe in one God and the Jewish values of justice, charity and ethical living.  Avraham and Sarah likely never dreamt they would earn international fame and acclaim for their efforts.  They simply believed they had a magnificent treasure and wanted to share it with others one at a time.

Let’s be like Avraham and Sarah and change the world one person at a time beginning with inspiring ourselves, our family members and those around us.  Don’t forget to sign up for S.O.S. II taking place in just a couple of weeks and inspire yourself to inspire others.